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Anyone who regularly rides Amtrak or any of the eight commuter railroads that share the tracks in the congested Northeast Corridor knows that high speeds and reliable service are not a given. Curved tracks wind their way through cities and towns, and bridges and tunnels creak after more than a century of use.
Traveling from D.C. to New York can take less than three hours on an express train, closer to three and a half hours if you choose the cheaper option — if you are lucky. The system is at or over capacity in many places, including choke points at the Hudson River crossings between New Jersey and New York.
Efforts to improve the Northeast Corridor will take many years and billions of dollars, but as of today the federal government is weighing its options: The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is leading a study that includes three proposals up for public review, each with its own price tag and level of ambition.
The least ambitious plan would bring existing infrastructure into a state of good repair, shaving a little time off the typical D.C.-to-New York trip. The plan with the highest projected cost envisions a massive new project for intercity trains topping 200 miles per hour, slashing 90 minutes to two hours off the same trek.
All three proposals look to the future: the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the population will grow by six million over the next 30 years within the eight states of the 450-mile Northeast Corridor.
“The corridor as it is today cannot accommodate that, and frankly neither can the highway or the aviation system. The question is how are we going to deal with it?” said Paul Nissenbaum, the FRA’s associate administrator for railroad policy and development.
It is the first environmental assessment of the corridor since 1978 when trips were a fraction of what they are now.
Each day 2,200 passenger trains and 70 freighters use the tracks between Washington and Boston, according to federal data. Amtrak’s higher-speed Acela and Northeast Regional trains carried more than 11 million passengers in fiscal 2014, a 21 percent increase over fiscal 2005.
Rail passengers are 70 percent of the combined air/rail market between New York and Washington, according to the FRA.
“Many of the infrastructure elements we are dealing with here, from bridges and tunnels to the catenary system, the electrical system, the signaling system, are decades and decades old, if not more than a century,” said Nissenbaum in an interview at DOT headquarters in Southeast Washington.
“Those things have to be addressed. While we are doing that, there are some simple improvements to straighten curves, to add some track in targeted places, to improve platforms at stations to allow for quicker boarding – all of that gives us an opportunity to make some near-term improvements,” he added.
Amtrak’s trains are capable of traveling about twice as fast as their average speed in the Northeast Corridor, which is only 80 miles per hour due to the many curves and speed restrictions. But just straightening out the tracks and replacing obsolete infrastructure — a seemingly relatively simple order — faces difficulties.
Bringing the Northeast Corridor into a state of good repair, the FRA’s “Alternative 1” in the study, would cost $65 billion. It involves environmental impacts “with the addition of two segments in Connecticut and Rhode Island outside of the existing NEC right-of-way, including impacts on land cover, water resources, ecological resources, prime farmlands, and prime timberlands,” according to a study summary.
For its relatively low cost, Alternative 1 could significantly increase the level of rail service and provide modest time-savings. FRA estimates an annual increase of about 70 million regional and intercity trips under this proposal.
Alternatives 2 and 3 have estimated costs of $135 billion and $290 billion, respectively. They call for significantly shortening time travel time between major cities, but their projected ridership increases don’t jump off the page. For instance, Alternative 3 with its $290 billion price tag would accommodate only five million more intercity trips annually than Alternative 1, priced at $65 billion.
Given the fiscal constraints of the current political climate, are such ambitious proposals realistic?
“I think what is realistic is to eliminate some of those key choke points and bring the average speed up from what it is today,” Nissenbaum said. “Going through Baltimore, you go through a tunnel well over 100 years old where you slow down to 30 and sometimes 10 to 15 miles per hour.”
Alternative 3 also would impact the “built and natural environment along the entire length of the additional spine between Washington and Boston,” according to the FRA.
Paul Lewis, a transportation policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington research group, believes even seemingly simple improvements — like straightening the tracks — will be difficult.
“Straightening out those turns and making the track able to handle higher speed trains might require taking of property, expanding tunnels, or doing other, very expensive infrastructure that has both cost and legal implications that can slow up the process,” he said.
“I think it is important to think big, but it is also important to be realistic. Some of the proposals being presented are in the hundreds of billions of dollars,” Lewis added.
The FRA currently is holding public meetings throughout the Northeast Corridor to gather feedback on its three proposals, and expects to make a decision later this year. But the agency is not only estimating the cost of the potential upgrades; officials say there is also a cost of doing nothing: less reliability, less service, and the same old infrastructure in a region rapidly adding more jobs and people.
Officials also note that any infrastructure improvements would assist not only Amtrak’s passengers. Commuter railroads, including MARC in Maryland and VRE in Virginia, would benefit, too.